Apologists at War: Religious Studies is Not the Enemy

The Maxwell Institute’s removal of Daniel Peterson as editor of the Mormon Studies Review continues to raise the issue of the appropriateness of apologetics at institutions such as BYU (for a more recent discussion, see here)–on the one hand BYU has a mission to “build the kingdom” so to speak, and on the other hand BYU is working to establish a legitimate academic presence in fields such as religious studies. There are some that see these two goals as largely exclusive of each other. This comment left on William Hamblin’s blog is a prime example:

Additionally, as a long-time observer of the conflict between those inclined to traditional apologetics and those who believe we should jettison that approach in favor of a “Religious Studies” model (which effectively adopts a secular posture in all things), I raise a warning voice.  There is a calculated effort underway to silence the voice of apologetics in the Church of Jesus Christ, and this effort is disguising its true motivations.  They have constructed a mythical narrative concerning the allegedly “vicious personal attacks” that they claim to be typical of FARMS-style apologetics in order to supplant eloquent defenses of the faith with dry, sterile, secular scholarship that has no use for faith except as a word they can use to describe the foolish traditions of people long since dead.

My sense is that much of John Gee’s post here can also be read as a criticism of adopting a religious studies approach at BYU (or at least in the MI). I’ve blogged a bit about my views on religious studies and apologetics here and here, and I’d like to invite continued discussion of those issues here.

In short, my view is that there are many ways to do religious studies; and I do not believe that religious studies necessarily precludes faith. As such, I believe that one can do religious studies at an institution such as BYU in a way that one’s work will be respected by others in the field of religious studies, while at the same time leaving room for faith. I also believe that apologetics and religious studies share some important similarities, and these similarities are such that apologetics should continue to thrive at BYU. I see no reason to believe that the changes at the Maxwell Institute mean that a kind of religious studies is emerging there that does not leave room for apologetics.

This does not mean that there will not be tension between religious studies and apologetics as might be done at BYU. I think that each endeavor has different intended consequences, for instance (apologetics to shore up faith, measured by increased commitment to the Church; and religious studies as understanding something previously unfamiliar or reinterpreting the familiar in light of the previously unfamiliar). But I think this is a healthy tension that pushes us to strive for a more impartial understanding of religion on the one hand, and a deeper understanding of why we produce scholarship on the other.

  • http://joelsmonastery.blogspot.com Gerald Smith

    I would hope there is room for both. I don’t have a problem with BYU/MI divesting itself of apologetics. I do wish it would have done so in a better way than like a “thief in the night.” It could easily have asked Daniel Peterson to take FARMS back into the wild with its blessing, and all involved would have looked like Christians in arms, rather than antagonists (or worse).

    When I think of religious studies, I really enjoy what is coming from Adam Miller, Joe Spencer and others, as we can read in their books at saltpress.org. That said, Daniel Peterson is on the board there, suggesting he also supports such studies. I just wish those who claim to be Mormon Christians, would also live their religion at BYU. The end result is potentially less funding for MI, bad publicity for everyone, and a childish bickering that doesn’t seem to abate.

  • http://www.themormonbookreview.com Kirk Caudle

    I’d love to see a Religious Studies program at BYU, and not just an undergraduate program. There are a significant amount of able scholars to staff a graduate program.

  • http://juvenileinstructor.org Ben P

    Smallaxe: agreed. And it should be pointed out this balance between academic and devotion study is certainly no unique to Mormonism or even BYU. My interactions with the Divinity Schools at Edinburgh and Harvard made me realize that they are dealing with the very same types of issues, and have built solid reputations within the scholarly community while still maintaining a pastoral, and even (soft) apologetic, focus.

    Gerald: I’d be careful drawing conclusions when you only have one side of the story. Just because the MI has remained silent on the dismissal doesn’t mean they are conceding the narrative, only that they are taking the general church response of remaining confidential.

    Kirk: the last thing the Religious Studies world needs is another graduate program, even if it would be a great benefit to BYU. We, as an academy, are already producing far too many graduate school degrees without enough jobs available. And I doubt a graduate degree in religious studies from BYU would mean anything in academia.

  • the narrator

    Kirk, right now the hope for BYU is just for an undergrad minor, and that hope is slim.

  • SmallAxe

    Gerald: It’s no significant fact that Dan is on the board of Salt Press. He’s done some great work both as an apologist and a scholar of Islam. I do wish, though, that he had exited MI more gracefully (even if we accept his version of the events). My fear is that the pens of the apologists might continue to turn against not only MI, but also Mormon Studies, or religious studies at large.

    Kirk: You might be interested in this series from a few years back: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/faithpromotingrumor/2008/07/a-religious-studies-major-at-byu-pt-iii/

    Ben P.: My experience with similar institutions is much the same as yours; although the tension between the different approaches is not always easily navigated.

  • http://juvenileinstructor.org Ben P

    Totally agreed, Smallaxe. In fact, my interactions with students and faculty at each institution showed that they still struggle with the tension. I’m just saying that there are models that BYU can and should follow, instead of them believing that this is a unique situation; I wish I they were engaged with, let alone aware of, these discussions going on.

  • danpeterson

    Just for the record: I’m not even slightly opposed to religious studies in general and Mormon studies in particular.

  • SmallAxe


    Are you willing to go on the record to state that you don’t oppose religious studies as done or planned to be done at the MI?

  • http://jettboy.blogspot.com Jettboy

    Anyone familiar with what dan peterson has been saying knows his problem isn’t with the direction IM wanted to go. Its with them only wanting to go that direction (and the way they made that clear).

  • https://mormonscriptureexplorations.wordpress.com/ William Hamblin

    For the record, neither am I. I actually do both. That is not, and never has been the issue. The issue is that FARMS was established to do ancient research AND Mormon studies.–that is, to examine the intersection of the two, focusing on understanding the Book of Mormon as an ancient text and apologetics for that position. Millions of dollars and tens of thousands of hours were devoted to this enterprise. The new Junta that has seized control of the Maxwell Institute has alienated, ostracized and marginalized everyone involved with classic FARMS, and has redirected the entire Institute to fund the pet projects of the new directors. The problem is they have systematically abandoned and destroyed classic FARMS in order to do their vision of Mormon Studies. If they want to create an institute to do what they find interesting, they should start their own, not steal someone else’s.

  • https://mormonscriptureexplorations.wordpress.com/ William Hamblin

    The other problem is that none of the directors of the new regime at the MI have actually done any Mormon Studies, nor have they coherently articulated precisely what it is they plan to do. So it is rather difficult to evaluate their ideas. All we really know is that they DON’T want to do what classic FARMS did. They just want the endowment classic FARMS raised.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/approachingjustice/ Chris Henrichsen

    If only I was eating popcorn right now…this would all be so much more fun.

  • SmallAxe

    Bill (and Dan),

    I think you need to clarify your position(s). Do you believe that religious studies is necessarily antagonistic to faith? If not, can religious studies leave enough room for what you’re calling a classic FARMS approach to apologetics? If religious studies can leave enough room for a classic FARMS approach (keeping in mind, of course, that FARMS was never monolithic), then why does the new “regime” want to replace the old regime?

    Is your argument that they’ve taken the wrong approach to religious studies? One that excludes a classic FARMS approach to apologetics? If so, I think you need to make a more coherent argument for a better approach to religious studies. If you see my previous post, I don’t think you can conclude that Bradford’s approach to religious studies necessarily precludes apologetics (even certain kinds of apologetics done during classic FARMS).

    If your argument is that we do not know what approach they are taking, then I think the most we can conclude is that they did not want certain people continuing to do as they’ve done. This doesn’t close the door to the possibility of others continuing some previous approach (FWIW, I agree with you, Bill, that the whole “commercial apologetic” label is silly, if not demeaning). To borrow an analogy many of you are fond of, they may want to hold to the notion of not allowing uncontested slam dunks, but want to change the players.

  • http://snailhollow.cobabe.net Jim Cobabe

    This is even fun *without* any popcorn.
    I’m afraid the element that is lacking at the BYU today is a man like Hugh Nibley. While I’m sure there will be lots of academic wonk types that disagree now, few people ever had the nerve to contradict Nibley. Without such a presence, I think any attempt at a religious studies group at BYU will be aimless and unsuccessful.
    Don’t know if there will ever be a replacement for him.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/approachingjustice/ Chris Henrichsen

    I do not think Nibley was even that type of person. Nor did he claim to be.

  • http://mormonwar.blogspot.com Morgan D

    I bet you wish you did that series on Nibley, right Chris? ;)

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/approachingjustice/ Chris Henrichsen

    Nope, glad that I didn’t step into that one. Pearls…swine…you know.

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